The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862 is a United States federal law signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. It provided that any U.S. citizen, or person planning on becoming a U.S. citizen, could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land (Archives). An applicant could not have ever borne arms against the U.S. Government and had to reside on the land for five years, during which they made a dwelling measuring 12 feet by 14 feet and improved the land (Archives). After these five years, the homesteader was eligible to file for a patent or deed of title by submitting to a local land office proof of residency and improvement (Archives). This act gave newly freed slaves the opportunity to own their own land and homes.

Following the Homestead Act of 1862, the Exoduster Movement began shortly afterwards, lasting from about 1877 to 1881. The Exoduster Movement was a migration of African Americans from the South to the West, settling the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, as well as other states. These newly freed slaves realized that emancipation in the South did not necessarily mean equality as “black codes”, laws enacted that legalized discrimination, were created in the South, lynchings were still occurring, and economic racism and poverty were rampant.

The Homestead Act States

Southern whites who opposed the Exoduster Movement attempted to prevent the migration (Meacham 114). Even some blacks opposed the movement, such as Frederick Douglass. Douglass believed that the government should support equality for African Americans everywhere, including the South and not just the West, and believed that migrations such as these would lead African Africans into a nomadic existence (Meacham 114).

Pap Singleton, an African American, was one of the most influential leaders of the Exoduster Movement, calling himself “The Moses of the Colored Exodus” (Meacham 113). He helped to organize the Exoduster Movement and encouraged newly freed blacks to migrate West where they could truly be free. Him and his associates were responsible for the relocation of 7,432 African Americans to Kansas by 1878 (Meacham 115) and in the end, about 15,000 to 20,000 blacks were persuaded to move West (Lusted).

Although the Homestead Act offered freed blacks new opportunities, they were also forced to face many hardships and struggles. Strong winds, blizzards, prairie fires, limited water and wood supplies, and plagues of insects such as grasshoppers and locusts, which threatened crops, were just some of the physical conditions of the Frontier that these homesteaders had to endure (Archives). Many were able to make it through these harsh conditions, learning to live with them, but many others were forced away by these conditions and did not stay on the land long enough to fulfill their claim to it.

Daniel Freeman's Homestead Application
Daniel Freeman's Proof of Improvements

Daniel Freeman was the first person to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Homestead Act of 1862, filing for his claim on January 1, 1863 (Archives). By 1934, over 1.6 million homestead applications had been processed and 270 million acres were given to individuals (Archives). Although the Homestead Act of 1862 did not require applicants to indicate their race, and therefore an exact number of applications filed by African Americans is unknown, thousands of newly freed men and women left the South and moved West during the Exoduster Movement to seek new opportunities and the prospect of land ownership (Potter).

Daniel Freeman's Certificate of Eligibility

In 1976, the Homestead Act expired in all states except Alaska, where it ended in 1986 (Columbia).


“When I landed on the soil, I looked on the ground and I says this is free ground.
Then I looked on the heavens, and I says them is free and beautiful heavens.
Then I looked within my heart, and I says to myself I wonder why I never was free before?”
-John Solomon Lewis, on his arrival in Kansas (NPS)

Next Page: Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips